“I could a tale unfold” or, the Promise of Gothic Endings

“I could a tale unfold” or, the Promise of Gothic Endings
© Photograph by Daniele Ferrero

Gothic was born or, rather, given life, in 1764, with the publication of Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’. It died, or was dismembered and interred, somewhere around 1818 or 1820, with the publication of, respectively, Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ or Charles Maturin’s ‘Melmoth the Wanderer’. (Recent reassessments of Thomas De Quincey’s ‘Confessions of an English Opium Eater’ [1821], such as Margaret Russett’s De Quincey’s ‘Romanticism’ [1997] may allow us another provisional moment of “conclusion” for the gothic.)

Already, towards the end of its rather artificial life, gothic narrative’s often galvanic animation was perceived by some of its readers as not being fully charged, a highly visible sign of which was the parody of its already monstrous form, most noticeably in Jane Austen’s ‘Northanger Abbey’, written in 1798/1799, but not published until 1817.

Austen’s work is a parody, aimed at the work of Anne Radcliffe in particular, as is well known. However, any parody of that which is already internally parodic (intentionally or not); that is to say, any parody of that which is marked by excess, heterogeneity, fragmentation, delirium and what Margaret Russett terms appositely a “degraded sensibility” (1997, 17), is hard to imagine.

The gothic, as a body of fiction, is always already excessive, grotesque, overspilling its own boundaries and limits. Austen’s knowing comedy perhaps misses the impropriety of gothic sensibility even as it registers the decay of a genre which is best understood not so much through the perceived signs of its formulaic decline as by the corrupt condition by which gothic attains any animation whatsoever.

The overly familiar relationship between the gothic as both a form and sensibility and Austen’s wit at its expense is worth acknowledging once more, not because of the author’s parody, but because of the tension — readable here between the distancing effect which the parodic desires, and the seduction of the writer or, for that matter, the reader — by the gothic.

The gothic, though dying even from its first moments of animation, leaves its traces in its audience, only to return again and again. As Jacques Derrida has suggested in a published interview, if the reader notices, day after day, the constant announcement that someone or something is dying, or dead, and if this dying or death continues to be an event, one begins to wonder what is happening (1996, 224–5). Even at the moment when it appears to have given up the ghost, the gothic, keeps on returning, even as it dies, or appears to be decaying. It starts to be celebrated, or perhaps fed upon, by the spectre of criticism, for example, or else it feeds upon itself, adopting a knowingly self-referential manner.

The year after ‘Melmoth the Wanderer’, that publication chosen by many critics in the twentieth-century to signal gothic’s demise and the move on to more sophisticated forms of literary entertainment, Walter Scott writes and publishes his critical introduction to Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’ (which Scott attempts to dress up by insisting on its alternative identity as a historical romance; 1821, 1974).

In this same year, as mentioned above, Thomas De Quincey publishes his ‘Confessions of an English Opium Eater’. If ‘Confessions’ is a conclusion of sorts, it also marks the return of the gothic even at the moment of its death.

This work, though not a novel, is clearly disturbed in its narrative identity by traces of the gothic, from the first instances of the house in Soho and the haunted, haunting anonymous girl, to the perpetually haunting figure of Anne, who returns to disturb De Quincey’s troubled self.

Even the city of London, with its dark passages and labyrinthine streets, is constructed by De Quincey in a knowingly gothic fashion; the convolutions of which, in turn, inform the often equally labyrinthine structure of the Confessions’ narrative, with its constant deferrals and displacements of information, its promises of narrative revelations which never arrive, and its passages which, all too often, lead frustratingly nowhere.

Why then should we take notice, albeit in passing, of Scott’s introduction (which is also a timely reassessment), and De Quincey’s mordantly witty memoir? Both are, arguably, exemplary texts which respond to the gothic in particular ways, taking apart the gothic corpse, dismembering and remembering it.

Scott’s critical appreciation subsumes the gothic in favour of historical romance as the identity given Walpole’s narrative of terror. De Quincey, on the other hand, brings out the terror of the streets of the English capital, as well as the terrors of the night, giving them a resonantly English context, as one of the contributors to this collection suggests.

If the gothic had previously been concerned, at least in part, to make manifest a fear of the foreign other, De Quincey’s text brings home the fear, internalising that in a doubly economical fashion, through the issue of narrative representation, and through the consumption of narcotics.

This double consumption is, we would argue, an emblematic figure for the location of the gothic in the Victorian period, whether that location is in the period’s publications, in its images or in its cultural discourses in general.

The gothic, having been dismembered, is no longer figured in the nineteenth-century, from the 1820s onwards, as a single, identifiable corpus. (If indeed it ever was. One of the chief features of gothic in its first phase is the frequently fragmentary condition of its narrative, as many critics in recent years have acknowledged.)